Middle school students from St. Rita School in Alexandria did not
take a field trip, but instead made a pilgrimage to the St. John Paul II
National Shrine in Washington Oct. 26.
Melissa Manaker, assistant principal and sixth-grade religion
teacher, described their journey to the shrine as a “blessing” to see the
relics and histories of Sts. John Paul II and Thomas More. The pilgrimage was
prompted by studying religious freedom in social studies.
For early Christians, “pilgrimage was a process of conversion, a yearning for intimacy with God and a trusting plea for their material needs." Pope John Paul II in 1998.
“God raises up examples of saints in each century,” said Manaker.
The act of making a pilgrimage is a Christian tradition defined
by faithful traveling to a sacred place or item to draw closer to Christ. The
experience of the pilgrimage in its entirety can be seen as a prayer.
“We see (the shrine) primarily as a place of pilgrimage,” said Joe
Swick, pilgrimage and visitor services specialist.
For early Christians, “pilgrimage was a process of conversion, a
yearning for intimacy with God and a trusting plea for their material needs,”
said Pope John Paul II in 1998.
The visit of the 75 St. Rita students was seen as a “pilgrimage”
rather than a “field trip” because it not only incorporated education but also
opportunities for spiritual growth.
Before arriving, each student chose a deceased family member to
pray for throughout their visit and at the end of their tour they gathered in
the shrine’s Remdeptor Homilis Church to pray.
The middle-schoolers were spilt into groups of three based on
their houses — similar to Harry Potter — each named after an archangel with a
“Each house has a vocational mission through each saint,” said
House Michael students have the charism of protecting, so those
students mentor their younger peers. Students of House Gabriel proclaim school
announcements on the PA system. House Raphael students are healers and
distribute milk at lunch.
The students toured the shrine’s permanent exhibit, “A Gift of
Love: The Life of St. John Paul II”; the featured exhibit “God’s Servant First:
The Life and Legacy of Thomas More”; the shrine’s Luminous Mysteries Chapel;
and Redemptor Hominis Church.
The groups quietly listened and gazed at the mosaics as tour
guides questioned students’ knowledge of the Christian symbolism and the histories
of both Sts. John Paul II and Thomas More.
At the St. Thomas More exhibit, students had a moment to kneel
before the relics of the Arlington Diocese’s patron saint and recite a prayer
the saint wrote while imprisoned.
The students’ visit came four days after the shrine dedicated
a new St. John Paul II bronze statue by artist Chas Fagan, who also painted the
official portrait of St. Teresa of Kolkata that was displayed at her
Students finished their pilgrimage with a group photo in front of the statue of
the saint they came to learn about and to imitate.